Our VoiceHealth & Environment

The Deteriorating Safety Conditions Facing Somali Workers in Minnesota’s Meat Processing Plants

Garat Ibrahim • Sep 16, 2011

The general level of safety of Somali workers has been eroding for some time inside the Jenneo plant in Melrose, Minnesota, but today I would like to share with you a story of one worker who has endured tremendous challenges—challenges that were and are completely preventable.

I’ll use the alias “Jimale” to protect this workers identity—a worker who has suffered life threatening injuries.

This particular employee started working at the plant through a temporary agency. After three months, one is either hired or transitions into another three month probationary period with Jenneo itself. This is to say, one could work for nearly 6 months without any solid word concerning their job status, but then be let go at any time without recourse.

This is where the injustice begins. Right after starting at the plant, temp workers receive no training for any specific job. They are taken to a table, given gloves and a knife, and right away put out on the line to begin cutting meat. All that matters is how quickly they can portion the pieces. More experienced workers will also overload these new workers with their own work, as well, seeking to take full advantage of those with temporary job status. Compounding these struggles, complaints to superiors always fall on deaf ears.

Jimale’s troubles started when he completed his first probationary period. He was attached to a moving machine, which had people on two sides working closely to one another. The lead worker began throwing meat onto the belt for the workers to cut; however, he did so in a way that not only broke many safety guidelines but was actually endangering the lives of all the workers, including the lead’s. The lead, like so many workers, was working recklessly in an attempt to increase productivity—so as to impress supervisors and management alike, so as to possibly have some shot at being hired.

From the start the lead was throwing all the extra meat into his section of the line, and while trying to cope with the overwhelming workload, he began to completely lose feeling in one of his hands. Ultimately, he was forced to have surgery to repair what turned out to be significant nerve damage. He is now left with a permanent disability. Post-surgery, a doctor’s note explaining what work Jamile was capable of and not capable of was provided. His doctor underscored the fact that he was not to carry anything with his left hand until his doctor had deemed him fully recuperated.

But, Jenneo gave Jamile a choice—get back to work, or get fired.

For the following three months, Jamile worked at the same speed and at the same production level that originally caused his injury, and he did so with only one hand, pushing the meat against his body to compensate for his lack of another good hand. To say that a basic level of human rights – not to mention simple respect and compassion – were violated in Jamile’s case would be a massive understatement.

Later, he was assigned to a different job altogether due to a no show by another employee. As is the norm at this Jenneo plant, he received no training—the first moving turkey that passed by smashed into his right eye, hospitalizing him for two weeks.

No one from the company ever bothered to follow up on his case or condition, and eventually the medical bills began to accumulate. As Jamile was unable to work, he was unable to pay them. On top of this, Jenneo disciplined him for not following the standard safety guidelines for a job he was never trained to perform.

These cases of unjust disciplinary measures are far too common to list here. Our goal is not for workers to abandon the Jenneo plant in Melrose, but to remain, to change the plant from the inside in cooperation with workers and management alike.

The rights of the workers in this plant, like so many who are working in America’s processing plants, are violated on a daily basis. To help these workers, please take a moment to sign the Slow-Down-the-Line Petition.

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